Chapter no 49

Children of Time

They watched it burn its way across the sky.

Although active Messenger-worship was almost non-existent in these more enlightened times—what need of faith when there was ample proof of the precise nature of God?— the spiders watched that fiery trail, either with their own eyes or through the surrogate eyes of their biological systems, and knew that something had gone out of their world. The Messenger had always been there. They retained the memories of distant, primitive times when that moving light in the heavens had been both compass and inspiration to them. They recalled the heady days of Temple, and the earliest communications shared between God and Her congregation. Something that has been a part of their cultural consciousness from their earliest times; something that they know, rationally, to be older than their very species; and now it is gone.

In the quiet dark of his work-chamber, Fabian feels a shock of emotion go through him that he had not expected. He, of all spiders, is not religious. He has no time for the unknowable, save to pin it down by experiment and reason, and thus make it knowable. Still …

He has been watching on a filmy screen, the image formed from thousands of tiny chromatopores of various colours expanding and contracting to form pinpoint parts of the overall picture. Deep underground, as his chambers are, there is no chance of him witnessing this first-hand. He is a pallid, angular, unkempt specimen of his species, and seldom cares much about seeing the sun; instead he works to his own rhythms that have little to do with day or night.

Well, he remarks to his only constant companion, I suppose

that backs up everything you have told us.

Of course. The response comes from the very walls, an invisible presence all around him like a familiar demon. And you must retaliate at the first opportunity. They will give you no chances.

The connection peer group seemed to be having some success, just before, Fabian notes. The curved walls of the chamber around him seethe and crawl; a thousand thousand ants engaged in the inscrutable bustle of activity that allows this colony—a super-colony really, risen again after all this time—to function in the unique way that it does.

There was never any chance of their success. I am only glad that they have been shown this unequivocal demonstration of the enemy’s intent. I am concerned about the strategy to be employed, however. It is a strange thing, this bodiless speech. Muscular pistons in the walls create the vibrations that simulate a spider’s elegant footfalls. Elsewhere, the thing communicates by radio still, but here Fabian can speak to it as though it was a spider: a particularly aloof, temperamental female, he considers, but still a spider.

It speaks in that curious negotiated language that was long ago devised for communication between the spiders and their God, but recently it has taken to bringing up a pair of phantom palps on the screens to add emphasis to its language, adopting a bizarre pidgin of the spiders’ own visual language. Fabian, who has never been comfortable much with his own kind, finds it congenial company. That, and his unarguable skill with chemical architecture and conditioning, has earned him this vital role. He is the hands and the confidant of the Messenger, as she is now.

I wonder if there was anything left, at the end, of me. The words were slow, hesitant. At first Fabian wonders if another glitch has developed in the machinery, or possibly in the colony’s conditioning. Then he decides that this is one of those times when his companion is dredging up some remnant intonation or rhythm of speech that it might have used in

another age, in another form.

Doctor Avrana Kern, he addresses it. It does not like him to call it God or Messenger. After long haggling, they have found a form of arbitrary movements that seem to recall to it the name it once went by. It is one of many idiosyncrasies that Fabian is happy to indulge. He has a special relationship with God, after all. He is Her closest friend. He is responsible for maintaining Her proper functioning and untangling any errors in Her conditioning.

Around him, in a network of tunnels and chambers the geography of which is constantly being altered, dwells a colony of hundred million insects. Their interactions are not as fast as an electronic system built by human hands, but each insect’s tiny brain is itself a capable engine for data storage and decision making, and the overall calculating power of the colony as a whole is something that even it cannot assess. Cloud computing: not speed but an infinitely reconfigurable breadth and complexity. There is more than enough room for the downloaded mind of Avrana Kern.

It took a long time to work out how to do it, but in the end she was only information, after all. Everything is only information, if you have sufficient capacity to encompass it. A long time, too, to copy that information from satellite to a holding colony on the surface. A long—a much longer—time for what they had downloaded to organize itself to the extent that it could say I am. But it is, now, and they have had a long time. The colony that Fabian lives within and tends is God made flesh, the incarnation of the Messenger.

Fabian opens radio contact with one of the orbital observatories and checks on the approach of the enemy, which is in a trajectory that confirms it will be seeking orbit around their world. This is a time for waiting, now. Across the planet, they are all waiting: not just the spiders, but all those species they have connected with. They will all be under the hammer soon, facing with their numbers and their ingenuity a species that created them without ever meaning to, and now seeks to erase them just as thoughtlessly. There are spiders, ant

colonies, stomatopods in the ocean, semi-sentient beetles and a dozen others of varying proportions of intellect and instinct, all in some faint way aware that the end times are here.

Up on the orbital web, Bianca can plan no more. Portia waits with her peers, ready to fight the returning space-gods. For now they can only cling to their webs, as the extended senses their technology gives them track the approach of the end.

And then the great bulk of the Gilgamesh is drawing close, at the end of its long deceleration, its ailing thrusters fighting to slow it to the point where the momentum of a dive past the planet will mesh with the reaching gravity and bring the ark ship into orbit.

Although they have been aware of the dimensions of the enemy, from their own measurements and Kern’s records, the sheer scale of the Gilgamesh is awe-inspiring. More than one spider must be thinking, How can we fight such a thing?

And then the ark ship’s weapons unleash their fire. Its approach has been calculated to put the equatorial web in the sights of its forward-facing asteroid lasers and, in that fleeting pass, the Gilgamesh makes full use of its window of opportunity. The web has no centre, no vital point where a surgical strike might cause widespread damage, and so the lasers just sear out indiscriminately, frying strands, cutting open nodes, tearing great gashes in the overall structure of the web. Spiders die: exposed suddenly to vacuum, thrown out into space or inwards towards the planet, some few even vaporized by the incendiary wrath of the lasers themselves.

Portia receives damage reports even as she and her warrior peer group prepare for their counterattack. She is aware that they have just lost, in one searing instant, a certain number of soldiers, a certain proportion of their weapons—all just blindly snuffed out. Bianca confers with her, her radio vibrating with electric current to simulate the dancing rhythms of speech.

The battle plan is unchanged, Bianca confirms. She will already have a complete picture of what they have lost and

what they still have. Portia does not envy her the task of coordinating all their orbital defences. Are you ready for deployment?

We are. Portia feels a swelling of angry determination at the destruction. The deaths, the destruction of the Messenger, the heedless brutality of it all, fire her up with righteous zeal. We will show them.

We will show them, Bianca echoes, sounding equally determined. You are the swiftest, the strongest, the cleverest. You are the defenders of your world. If you fail, then it will be as though we never lived at all. All our Understandings will be nothing but dust. I ask you to keep the plan in mind at all times. I know that some of you have qualms. This is not the time for them. The great minds of our people have determined that what you are to do is what must be done, if we are to preserve who and what we are.

We understand. Portia is aware that the great star-blotting form of the ark ship is nearing. Already other detachments are launching.

Good hunting, Bianca exhorts them all.

All around, the orbital weapons of the web are in action. Each consists of a single piece of debris, a rock hauled up by the space elevator or captured from the void, held under enormous tension within the net—and now suddenly released, hurled at great speed into the vacuum towards the ark ship.

But tiny, Portia considers. Those vast boulders she remembers seeing are nothing to the ark ship. Surely its shell must be proof against any such missiles.

But the spiders are not simply throwing rocks. The hurled missiles have multiple purposes, but mostly they are a distraction.

Portia feels the webbing tense around her. Ensure your lines are properly coiled, she sends to her peers. This will be rough.

Seconds later, she and her peers are flung into the void on

an oblique line that will intercept the Gilgamesh’s pass as it enters a stable orbit.

She clutches her legs tightly into her body by instinct at first, a shock of terror erupting in her mind and threatening to overwhelm her. Then her training takes over and she begins checking on her soldiers. They are spreading out as they fall towards their rendezvous with the Gilgamesh, but they are still linked by lines to a central hub, forming a rotating wheel, just one of many now spinning towards the Gilgamesh.

The ark ship’s lasers burn the first few rocks, heating them explosively at carefully calculated points to send them tumbling out of its path. Others slam into the vast vessel’s sides, rebounding or embedding. Portia sees at least one thin plume of lost air from a lucky or unlucky strike.

Then she and her peers are bracing for impact. Her radio feeds them second-by-second instructions from the computing colonies on the orbital web, to help them slow down their approach with their little jets and their meagre supply of propellant. Portia is very aware that this is quite likely to be a one-way trip. If they fail, there will be nothing to journey back to.

She has slowed as much as she is able, spinning out more line from the centre of the wheel to put her further away from her sisters. She spreads her legs and hopes that she has managed to do away with just enough momentum.

She lands badly, fails to catch hold with the hooks of her insulated gloves, bounds back from the Gilgamesh’s hull. Others of her team have been luckier and now they latch on with six legs and reel in their errant peers, Portia included. One is unluckier, landing at an angle and smashing her mask. She dies in an agonized flurry of twitching legs, her helpless cries coming to her companions through the metal of the hull.

There is no time for sentiment. Her corpse is secured to the hull with a little webbing, and then they are on the move. They have a war to fight, after all.

We will show them, Portia thinks. We will show them the error of their ways.

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